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Overstreet

The Tree of Life (2011)

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Not that I have anything new to add after 33 pages of discussion/debate, but I'm just getting around to a second viewing on DVD and was wondering if anyone else found more to mine and enjoy on the small screen...

I've found that watching it for a second time has made some things much clearer, namely that it's very obviously the middle son who has died. This was not so clear to me for some reason in the theater. I love that Malick reveals this in the opening minutes, specifically in the mother's voiceover about "no one who trusts in grace comes to a bad end" and Malick deliberately chooses to contradict this notion by cutting to a shot of the middle son walking away and turning back plaintively, then immediately cutting to the repeating motif of the raging waterfall.

I haven't read most of the discussion, so forgive me if this has been batted around already, but are we to assume that the middle son committed suicide? He was artistic and obviously of a more sensitive disposition, and after his death the father mentions painfully that the boy used to punch himself in the face.

All in all, a much more potent experience... this second go-around.

Was there anything explicit the states/implies that the death was a suicide? I could see how you might get that impression, but I'm not sure Malick ever tries to imply that (or, if he does, it's in a pretty cryptic manner). I believe one of Malick's brothers actually committed suicide, which is perhaps why it's rather vague in the film. The film is obviously semi-biographical in nature, but I find (as a writer) it's best to avoid certain things so as to stop becoming too biographical (which somehow proves creatively stifling).

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Was there anything explicit the states/implies that the death was a suicide? I could see how you might get that impression, but I'm not sure Malick ever tries to imply that (or, if he does, it's in a pretty cryptic manner). I believe one of Malick's brothers actually committed suicide, which is perhaps why it's rather vague in the film. The film is obviously semi-biographical in nature, but I find (as a writer) it's best to avoid certain things so as to stop becoming too biographical (which somehow proves creatively stifling).

I saw it on big screen for the 3rd time last weekend. There is nothing that really points to it being a suicide, except what we can read into the scene where Mr. O'Brien reflects on making his son feel ashamed turning music pages as a son. Nobody in the class had made that connection until I brought up Malick's background. Then I bet they all wanted to see that section again.

Since that scenario played on only slightly removed from our own lives last month, I saw a great deal of what people close to me were going though in that scene. It had it down exactly.

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Was not quite sure where to post this, but I'm sure many of you will find this roundtable interesting. Plummer is making headlines for a few disparaging comments (with some praise sprinkled in) regarding working with Malick. The other actors seem shocked, except Clooney, who seems to nod knowingly. This type of sentiment doesn't seem to be affecting Malick's casting too much.

David Ansen: "The New Land." Huh?

And Charlize Theron KIND OF feels like she's in character as Mavis. Just sayin'.

Not sure if I can embed this link.

Edited by Nicholas

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I had the privilege of showing the film to Eugene and Jan Peterson, John and Wendy Wilson, Diane Glancy, Luci Shaw, John Hoyte, Charlie Peacock, Andi Ashworth, Rudy and Shirley Nelson, Rick and Ginger Geyer, and several other writers and artists last weekend. We talked about it all the next day. I also showed them Seraphine and Of Gods and Men. Eugene gave me a hug after Seraphine and said, "I'm seeing so many wonderful things that I might never have seen! Jan and I got Netflix this year, and we have no idea what to watch, and everything we've seen has been horrible!"

That's a moment I won't soon forget.

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Overstreet wrote:

: I had the privilege of showing the film to Eugene and Jan Peterson, John and Wendy Wilson, Diane Glancy, Luci Shaw, John Hoyte, Charlie Peacock, Andi Ashworth, Rudy and Shirley Nelson, Rick and Ginger Geyer, and several other writers and artists last weekend.

Dude!

Nicholas wrote:

: The other actors seem shocked, except Clooney, who seems to nod knowingly.

Given the two seconds of screentime Clooney got in The Thin Red Line, it's not hard to see why. (But hey, it's stunt casting like that which has allowed Fox Video to include The Thin Red Line in George Clooney value-pack-priced boxed sets!)

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Dude!

Um, yes? Problem? It was a privilege I thought I might gratefully share here without worrying about anybody treating it as a brag. When I mentioned it on Facebook, though, somebody snarked that I had just boasted the "biggest Christian name-drop ever." I took it down to avoid a ridiculous argument about the difference between a gratefully recounting a wonderful meeting and "name-dropping." But if sharing it here gives the wrong impression, then let's delete these last few posts.

It's interesting: This retreat took place at Laity Lodge near Kerville, Texas. Recently, after an intriguing Facebook note from a friend made me curious, I asked the executive director there to look into their records of guests who have stayed in their solitary retreat cabin called The Quiet House. We were both delighted to learn that "Terry Malick" has stayed there himself on retreat.

And that's not very far from Smithville, where some of Tree of Life was filmed.

Edited by Overstreet

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Overstreet wrote:

: Um, yes? Problem?

I just find it interesting that you went one way there and another way here.

And it's kind of amusing that this came up at the same time as a reference to Malick's blink-and-you'll-miss-them use of celebrity cameos. :)

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I haven’t had time to read through the entire thread here, so forgive me if this is repetitive in any way…

Since watching The Tree of Life about a month ago with part of my family, my view of it has changed somewhat. It seems that what so many Christian viewers want to do with Malick’s film is view it as a movie about God’s sovereignty.

Obviously, there’s plenty about it that encourages that reading, not the least of which is the entire creation sequence, but watching it for the third time, I was struck more by the movie’s humanity than its spirituality.

In other words, I’m not so sure that Malick is making a grand theological statement. I think, more than anything, he wants to mimic how the mind works, how memories flow and become exaggerated or even grotesque over time, and our increasing ability to grasp what we previously couldn’t as we move up and up and up, with the heaven sequence at the end representing not a literal depiction of heaven but a future moment in which (in the presence of God) human understanding reaches a peak and all questions are settled. After all, upward movement is a theme of the movie, from Mrs. O’Brien pointing up at the sky and saying ,”That’s where God lives,” to the physical and mental growth of young Jack.

So, this in mind, I’d have to say that--for me--The Tree of Life isn’t about sovereignty but about the imperfections of human understanding. These are perhaps just two sides of the same coin, but there it is.

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Hey Andrew,

I haven't read too much about God's "sovereignty" to be honest. I think I've read a great deal more about theodicy, which involves God's sovereignty, but I think is more appropriately specific, and even speaks to some of your thoughts on the human mind's psychological wrestling. The human wrestling you speak of has more to do with trying to come to grips with the nature of God (given the presence of evil and suffering) in such a way that, like Job, we can be filled with gratitude. And I think Creation plays a big role in our wrestling with theodicy.

It's interesting that you mention "upward movement," because it was just brought to my attention recently that the sermon in the middle of the film that the preacher is reading from is Kierkegaard's Upbuilding Discourse on Job and gratitude, and it is called "The Lord Gave, and the Lord Took Away; Blessed be the Name of the Lord."

All in all, I think I would agree with you that the film has an emphasis on the anthropological/pscyhological (I did mention Kierkegaard above!), but I don't know that this lends itself to dichotomizing the "spiritual" and the "human." (Are these not inseparable, anyway?). So I would disagree that the film is not really dealing with grand theological issues. In short, I think it's all there--the "whole horse," as it were.

Anyway, I'm working on an essay dealing with some of these topics, so some of your post caught my attention.

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but I don't know that this lends itself to dichotomizing the "spiritual" and the "human." (Are these not inseparable, anyway?). So I would disagree that the film is not really dealing with grand theological issues. In short, I think it's all there--the "whole horse," as it were.

I think I probably put the movie in more of a box than I intended to with my comment—I didn’t mean to push its theological issues to the sidelines. I’ve just noticed that many around me (friends, family, acquaintances) want to draw an objective theological proposition out of it (sovereignty is a particular focus of some churches around me). That kind of response tends to bring out the reactionary in me, which is why I've focused more on the memory/cognition aspects. I do need to be careful, though, about ignoring what it says about God's nature, because that is very much a central issues (if not the central issue).

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but I don't know that this lends itself to dichotomizing the "spiritual" and the "human." (Are these not inseparable, anyway?). So I would disagree that the film is not really dealing with grand theological issues. In short, I think it's all there--the "whole horse," as it were.

I think I probably put the movie in more of a box than I intended to with my comment—I didn’t mean to push its theological issues to the sidelines. I’ve just noticed that many around me (friends, family, acquaintances) want to draw an objective theological proposition out of it (sovereignty is a particular focus of some churches around me). That kind of response tends to bring out the reactionary in me, which is why I've focused more on the memory/cognition aspects. I do need to be careful, though, about ignoring what it says about God's nature, because that is very much a central issues (if not the central issue).

Definitely understandable!

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indieWire posts Matt Zoller Seitz's new video essay: "SHOULD WIN: The Tree of Life."

They also posted Anne Thompson's new interview with Emmanuel Lubezki:

Lubezki, who has since made his third film with Malick, an untitled love story with Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams about a man who reconnects with a woman from his hometown while struggling with his marriage, has a new world view, thanks to the influence of the director.

"Working with Terry has changed my life," he admits. "I'm a different parent, I'm a different husband, and I'm a different friend. I see nature in a different way since I started working with Terry. I have much more respect for things that I wasn't aware of as much. He is one of the most important teachers in my life. And I'm a much better cinematographer in helping directors in a much more comprehensive way."

The interview also has some interesting suggestions regarding how much of Sean Penn's footage was not included in the finished film.

Edited by Overstreet

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I actually made a similar connection in a column I wrote recommending Jeffrey's film criticism and his invitation to "look closer":

Finally, I’m thankful for Overstreet because his call to “look closer” reminds me of two of my favorite contemporary artists: Marilynne Robinson and Terrence Malick. In his emphasis on cultivating a kind of focused seeing, Overstreet—an artist in his own right—brings an artistry to film criticism and enjoyment. Inspired by John Calvin, Marilynne Robinson says “perception” is at the heart of both theology and her novelistic artistry. Seeing the grandeur of God in all of Creation is essential for her, and participating in this sacramental reality is part of what it means to give glory to God—or, to live graciously. At the heart of our fallenness, then, is our spiritual myopia. And, in this way, I can’t help but also think of Malick, whose films—in both form and content—inspire us to “notice the glory,” and the potential consequences when we fail to.

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Well, this didn't take long. Already, somebody's added a comment about Heidegger to the article:

I don't want to come off sounding too academic here, but it's important to note the influence of Heideggerian existential philosophy on Malick's work. Although he studied under the English analytical philosopher Gilbert Ryle, Malick clearly was drawn more toward Heidegger's phenomenology, which emphasized humanity's "thrownness" in the everyday world of existence (what the German called Dasein) and the concealment from us of elemental "Being" (Sein). It's the flashes of this Being in Malick's films (captured so skillfully by his excellent cinematographers) that looks "spiritual," although it's nothing like Christianity. Heidegger was criticized, among other things (not least his politics!), for his lack of concern for individual human beings. Perhaps this explains why actors in Malick's films often complain about the final edits, which often mangle scenes and sometimes cut out characters altogether.

Notably, Malick's translation of Vom Wesen des Grundes ("The Essence of Reason") remains the standard English edition of the infamous German philosopher's text.

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Well, this didn't take long. Already, somebody's added a comment about Heidegger to the article:

I don't want to come off sounding too academic here, but it's important to note the influence of Heideggerian existential philosophy on Malick's work. Although he studied under the English analytical philosopher Gilbert Ryle, Malick clearly was drawn more toward Heidegger's phenomenology, which emphasized humanity's "thrownness" in the everyday world of existence (what the German called Dasein) and the concealment from us of elemental "Being" (Sein). It's the flashes of this Being in Malick's films (captured so skillfully by his excellent cinematographers) that looks "spiritual," although it's nothing like Christianity. Heidegger was criticized, among other things (not least his politics!), for his lack of concern for individual human beings. Perhaps this explains why actors in Malick's films often complain about the final edits, which often mangle scenes and sometimes cut out characters altogether.

Notably, Malick's translation of Vom Wesen des Grundes ("The Essence of Reason") remains the standard English edition of the infamous German philosopher's text.

I think we have good reason to believe that Malick, though certainly influenced by Heidegger, probably prefers Kierkegaard's "givenness" to Heidegger's "thrownness."

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Hey All,

I was wondering if anyone has come across any insightful commentary on Malick's use of music in The Tree of Life. More specifically, I'm interested in an analysis of some of the musical choices that seem to indicate an "upbuilding" or an "upward movement." I'm interested in musical choices that indicate the film's presupposition of love (if I may word it this way, and if I'm not mistaken that something like this exists in the film).

Admittedly, I'm not as well versed in the study of music (not in a sophisticated sense) as I'd like to be, so I'm interested in looking to see what others have said about the score, if anything.

Thanks!

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This resolves nothing, if you ask me, but I always enjoy reading about authorial intent. I just wish I could more clearly discern it from what's reported here. Your mileage may vary.

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Admittedly, I'm not as well versed in the study of music (not in a sophisticated sense) as I'd like to be, so I'm interested in looking to see what others have said about the score, if anything.
Desplat's score-- which is what you get if you purchase the actual OST on iTunes or Amazon-- is barely featured in the film at all. A lot of folks who loved the music used in the film were up in arms when they downloaded the OST to find a rather meandering hodge podge of compositions, and not Tavener's Funeral Canticle and Resurrection in Hades or Preisner's Day of Tears (used to unforgettable effect in the creation sequence). I generally like Desplat's work, and Lust Caution and The Painted Veil are two remarkable favorites from him in my book, but this movie just demanded so much more than he was able to give.

Malick's decision to rely almost entirely on his own personal mixtape of beautiful classical pieces for the film's most compelling moments, was the right decision. I've since seen the film four times-- and recently purchased it on Blu Ray-- and the music is one of the many things that work so spectacularly for me.

Anyone interested can download the "real" soundtrack from the links posted here

Edited by Greg P

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Hey Arts and Faith folks. I just wanted to pass along an essay that I've been pondering over for a while and finally finished. During the sermon on Job that is preached in the middle of the The Tree of Life, the priest is preaching some lines straight from one of Kierkegaard's Upbuilding Discourses, "The Lord Gave, The Lord Took Away; Blessed be the Name of the Lord." I wanted to take this as an entry point for considering the film as a whole.

The essay is called "They Who See God's Hand: The Tree of Life as an "Upbuilding Discourse."

I think Kierkegaard may have been mentioned fairly early in the thread. I know he came to mind for me even before I knew of this more direct connection in the film.

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During the sermon on Job that is preached in the middle of the The Tree of Life, the priest is preaching some lines straight from one of Kierkegaard's Upbuilding Discourses, "The Lord Gave, The Lord Took Away; Blessed be the Name of the Lord."

That is a great thing to know.

And a very nice essay. Thanks

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Your essay raises an interesting question. You say toward the beginning: "At the time, my hesitance stemmed from what I thought was the relative tenuousness of the connection; it’s not exactly considered a shrewd critical move to draw attention to a director’s personal interests when commenting on his or her film."

I have been mulling this over ever since I first read it. I agree that we can't rely on a reconstruction of a director's personal interests and academic/professional background as a lens through which we interpret everything they do. At least, we shouldn't assume that such an approach gives us a total picture of what is going on in a given film.

But... on the other hand, at some point we have to begin to interface with a director as a human being with stated interests, cultural characteristics, and a career with recognizable patterns or themes. It is shrewd to think of every Herzog film as part of an evolving canon, or of Tarkovsky's cinema in light of his own book on the subject.

So where is the critical line here?

Edited by M. Leary

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Your essay raises an interesting question. You say toward the beginning: "At the time, my hesitance stemmed from what I thought was the relative tenuousness of the connection; it’s not exactly considered a shrewd critical move to draw attention to a director’s personal interests when commenting on his or her film."

I have been mulling this over ever since I first read it. I agree that we can't rely on a reconstruction of a director's personal interests and academic/professional background as a lens through which we interpret everything they do. At least, we shouldn't assume that such an approach gives us a total picture of what is going on in a given film.

But... on the other hand, at some point we have to begin to interface with a director as a human being with stated interests, cultural characteristics, and a career with recognizable patterns or themes. It is shrewd to think of every Herzog film as part of an evolving canon, or of Tarkovsky's cinema in light of his own book on the subject.

So where is the critical line here?

I think Nicholas' nod is to the fact that auteur studies are very much out of vogue (no matter how much we are constantly attracted to them), and he wanted something in the text to hang his interpretation on.

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